We were leaving again. Fleeing. This time from Megève, a pretty little town in the Alps, near the Swiss border. We took some buses and trains, my mother deciding finally to head for the south of France, which was not yet occupied by the Germans. She decided on the city of Nice. In a big city, she said, a woman and a small child would be less noticed.
Nice was occupied by the Italians. “They do not chase or arrest Jews,” my mother often said. It was a mild occupation, without roundups. The Italian soldiers stood by in groups, watching people with a benevolent eye, smiling at pretty girls and children.
We walked and walked until suddenly my mother stopped at a small sign in a window. I read it for her: “Small room for rent, clean and cheap.” She rang the bell on the side of a massive wooden door and an old lady let us in. The rental room had another door that opened onto a side street: we could come and go without being seen. My mother paid for three months in advance.
Since she had a thick Yiddish accent, I spoke for my mother at all times. She pretended she had a throat problem. That’s how we survived: a woman without a voice, and a small girl. My mother was determined to survive.
I had seen the men take away my father. I had seen my brother walk away and not return. Why did they all disappear, with the rest of our family? I could not ask my mother because she always said, “I am here. Do not worry. We will survive.”
What did “survive” mean? There were so many new words I didn’t understand, but I kept silent.
One day, I came across a headline that I read to my mother: the Italians are leaving and the Nazis are on their way. My mother became agitated. She grabbed her bag and searched through it feverishly, tossing the contents on the table. She found a small piece of paper, told me to dress quickly, and then dragged me outside without waiting for me to finish dressing. She was like a woman possessed. I kept quiet and held her hand.
She gave me the paper and told me she didn’t know how to find the address. We walked and walked. Then I saw the street we were looking for. My mother stopped in front of a building and pushed me against the door in front of her, as if to hide me. The door opened a crack.
My mother said in her Yiddish accent and in a low voice, “We are here to talk to the people in the OSE [Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants].” A young woman quickly pulled us inside. She and my mother spoke softly.
Why was my mother crying?
“We are going to see a priest,” she said. “Do not talk unless asked a question. It would be better not to talk at all. We are in grave danger. The priest will help us.”
“Why do we need help?”
She didn’t answer.
What was a “priest”?
We were back on the street, the young woman pointing at another door. My mother knocked.
“Greta,” she told me. “We have to separate. You will go into hiding in a convent.”
What was a “convent”?
“When the war is over, I will come and get you. We will forget all of this.”
I was stunned. Had I done something terrible? Was I such a bad girl that she wanted to get rid of me? She avoided looking at me. She did not speak to me again.
The door opened, but I did not understand that my mother was leaving me here, in a strange red room with a man in a long robe. I turned to ask her to explain, but she was gone.
The priest looked at me.
“You are now Ginette Henry,” he said. “You were born in Orange and your parents are dead. Do you understand? You cannot tell your real name to anyone. You cannot tell where you were born and you cannot talk about your parents. Now repeat your new name and your birthplace.”
I was speechless.
“Talk to me,” he said. “I have to be sure you understand the gravity of the situation. Repeat, please.”
Finally, with a trembling voice, I said the unthinkable: “My name is Ginette Henry. I was born in Orange and my parents are dead. I am going to stay with my godparents.”
What was a “godparent”?
“If you do this, you might survive.”
I still did not know the word “survive.”
Suddenly, I was nine years old and an orphan.
I was put with a farm family, working from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the fields, picking flowers. My body would not straighten up; I could barely walk. One day, a neighbor came by to cut the hair of the farm workers’ children. I was blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and blonde, while the other children were mostly dark and swarthy. The neighbor made some comments.
When she left, the farmer’s wife said to her husband, in a strained voice, “I told you: this is too dangerous.”
In the middle of that night, she shook me awake and told me to get dressed. I obeyed, mute with fear. She pointed silently to the door. I opened it. Someone came out of a car and pulled me inside.
I never said goodbye to the farmer or his wife.
A black iron gate opened, leading to a front door. I was pushed through — a parcel that someone wanted to get rid of.
I saw a very young woman dressed in a floor-length black robe, a white collar framing her face, brown piercing eyes, a pink complexion, and a generous mouth. Her hands were folded over a cross hanging from her neck. A radiant smile illuminated her face, her white teeth gleaming. Her fingers left the cross to stroke my face and brush the hair away from my forehead. She came closer and hugged me.
I had not been touched by a kind person for so long that I had forgotten how it felt. I was swept up in a maelstrom of emotions.
“Do you want some food?” she whispered.
Food had been scarce on my long journey. I was so famished that I almost choked on the bread.
“This is your room.”
She kissed me, made a sign over my head, and left.
A moon ray shone through the window. Above the bed, I saw a cross with a man nailed to it.
What was the meaning of it? Who was this man?
The bed felt hard, and I was afraid to sleep. In the morning, I didn’t know where I was, but the nailed man was still on the wall.
“Bonjour!” It was the same young woman. “Wash your face and we will say prayers.”
What were “prayers”?
She squeezed my hand. “My name is Sister Andrea and I am a nun. You have to do exactly as I tell you.”
“Yes,” I replied. What was a “nun”?
We walked into the morning sunshine and approached a small house adjacent to the cloister with a white wall and a red brick roof. The house had a bright red door surrounded by sculpted columns, each with a stone sculpture of a face.
“Saints,” said Sister Andrea, pointing.
What was a “saint”?
I followed her inside. I was spellbound by the white interior and overwhelmed by the silence. There were white stone walls, black benches, and an altar with a gigantic cross hanging on the back wall between stained-glass windows. Mediterranean light streamed. Flowers had been placed everywhere.
The heavy door closed behind us and I was suddenly convulsed by uncontrollable shaking. The cross, the man nailed to it, the chapel, all these women — “nuns” they called themselves.
Where was I? Who were these women wearing long dresses? What would happen to me now? Would I never see my family again? I starting weeping.
Sister Andrea saw my anguish. She understood.
“Don’t worry. I will explain everything after prayers,” she whispered. “Meanwhile, sit on that bench and be silent.”
I folded my arms tightly around my body for comfort, and tried to understand what I was looking at. Further down the wall, I saw a closed black iron grille with other “nuns” behind it. Later, I learned that they were cloistered. They never left the convent, and no one could approach them or talk to them.
Suddenly, I heard singing. It came from the nuns behind the grille, their hands clasped across their chests, eyes closed in ecstasy. Beautiful sounds, unlike anything I had ever heard before. Profoundly moving.
I sat in a trance. Sister Andrea sat next to me, her hand on my shoulder.
I thought I might be safe here.
After the music stopped, I said all at once, in a very low voice, “Who is the man on the wall? Why are the ‘nuns’ behind the grilles? Why are you all wearing long dresses and naked feet? What are ‘prayers’?”
She shushed me, as a “mass” was in progress, another word I did not understand.
When it was over, I left with Sister Andrea. She explained everything: the brown-robed monk, the contemplation of heaven, and the Clarisses’ vow to live in poverty, never speak, and never have any contact with the outside world.
Sister Andrea and a handful of sisters, however, had taken different vows, she explained. They were allowed to leave the premises for errands and they could talk. They brought food to the 40 cloistered nuns and left it on their doorstep, and they also cooked for the 10 orphans and the three or four children in hiding.
What helped me was my Aryan appearance. And, of course, I was very obedient. Sister Andrea had a little sister whom she loved very much, she told me. A tiny girl with blond hair and a sunny disposition; she had not seen her since she entered the convent. Sister Andrea became very attached to me. She had told me I could stay by her side all the time, always. The other sisters were relieved to have her take complete charge of one of the hidden children. They were all aware of the dangers, yet they participated in the risk wholeheartedly.
I loved the grounds inside the walls of the convent: the pretty flowers, the trees, and especially a palm tree which became my friend. I sat at its feet a lot, my back against its rugged skin. I talked to it. I told it stories about the family I once had. I secretly whispered my real name, my brother’s and my parents’ names. I felt better after our conversations. Even on rainy days, I sat there, the raindrops hanging from the branches resembling tears on eyelashes.
I was Sister Andrea’s little shadow. I was not friendly with the other children. I was afraid someone would start talking and I would reveal something. My favorite time was going daily with Sister Andrea to pick flowers “for the glory of God.” We placed the flowers inside the chapel. I could have stayed there the whole day just looking at them.
I learned my catechism and that Jesus Christ was the son of God who had died for our sins. I learned all the prayers by rote.
I was always hungry. We ate dry bread and a bowl of watered-down coffee mixed with milk. I ate the bread slowly in a vast room with a high ceiling and large windows through which the sun streamed. On the wall was the man. I didn’t wear my yellow star. In effect, I wasn’t a Jew anymore; I was a practicing Catholic.
What I recall most is the constant pealing of the bells, calling the sisters to different prayers. There were nine daily prayers, two extra prayers on Friday, and on Thursdays prayer until midnight. There were eight prayers on Saturday and seven on Sunday.
It was a strict schedule and it provided a sense of peace. I appreciated the regularity of every day. Sister Andrea was my mother, my father, and my brother. She asked me to pray, but she never pressured me. The sisters rustled through the corridors, sailing in their dark robes like boats on the sea. I loved the bells marking day and night. The routine was a lifeline after years of running and hiding. The pageantry enthralled me.
Young women, probably not older than 18, took their vows, their parents invited to witness their marriage to God. The altar would be so white with flowers that it was almost blinding. The ‘bride’ would walk in with two sisters on a special red carpet; sometimes there was coercion if she hesitated. The veil was taken off and her beautiful hair was cut, her locks falling on the floor. Then she would lay on the marble floor, arms spread out like butterflies on a piece of cardboard, unable to fly away. The family would cry softly. This would be the last time they would see her.
I wanted so badly to be that undefiled girl prostrated on the floor, giving my young life away to the man on the cross. I liked that the bride became anonymous, leaving the chapel, surrounded by the two sisters and a new identity.
This is what I wanted. And I wanted the prayer book that the novice got, with its soft leather cover, a red silk string holding the pages and the gleaming gold seal on three sides.
All day, I followed Sister Andrea. I didn’t care if I understood what we did. I especially loved it when the Clarisses, kneeling behind the iron black grille, started to sing. I never saw them except then. With their heads and faces hidden under their wimples, their hands folded inside their habits’ long sleeves, I didn’t really see them. They were like ghosts, motionless, transfixed, then filing out in long processions. They never left the cloister except when they died and had to be buried in a cemetery.
The nuns’ voices penetrated deep inside me, like a soft hand caressing. Sister Andrea watched me with a smile. I was not permitted to take communion, so I watched the nuns swallow the white wafer with envy.
I was 10 now. I would watch Sister Andrea in her habit, her hands folded perfectly, merged with her prayers. She had no self; she was all spirit.
I knew that deep down Sister Andrea hoped I would become like her. That if no one claimed me, I would stay, be baptized, take my vows. Still, I was conflicted: on the one hand, I wanted to return to my family; on the other, I was so loved here. I was in the convent and I was happy.
When the Nazis came in their marching boots, I pressed myself against the wall, not moving, not looking at Sister Andrea. She touched me gently on the shoulder, but I pulled back. I knew instinctively that my life in the convent was over.
No one wanted me. I must be a bad girl, I thought again, if no one wanted me.
Sister Andrea prepared my bag. I really had almost nothing but the clothes on my back. The one thing I had become attached to were the white rosary beads with the cross that Sister Andrea had given me when I first arrived at the convent.
“We have to wait for nightfall,” she said. “Someone will come take you. Remember your new name, where you were born, and that your parents are dead.”
But I really did not know who I was anymore. I had already forgotten how to speak Yiddish, which I had spoken fluently at home with my family.
Sister Andrea tried to talk with me, but I did not respond. I was angry. I felt betrayed. She had lied to me.
But as a hooded figure grabbed me and guided me towards a black car, I turned my head and said softly, “Sister Andrea, I will be back.”
There were more hiding places, but eventually, at a train station, a woman in charge stood on a box. She told all the children — we had been packed in the train cars like sardines — to be quiet. She started calling out names, and with each name a parent moved up in front, and a child moved forward, too. Like a ballet that was silent.
The woman calling names reached the last sheet of paper. I had not heard my name. My throat constricted.
I only knew one name: Ginette Henry. I had forgotten Greta Herensztat. They called again and again: Greta Herensztat. Greta Herensztat. Suddenly a young man with jet black hair came flying through the crowd, shouting the name over and over.
He lifted me in the air. “Greta, remember? I am your brother Bernard. Look here, girl, this is your mother.”
I looked back at the platform still crowded with unclaimed children.
What would happen to them?
Looking at my brother and mother, I slowly realized that, yes, I was not alone in the world: I belonged to someone. And I was someone.
My name was Greta Herensztat.
In 2003, I went back to visit the convent with my daughter and grand-daughter, keeping the promise I had made to Sister Andrea in 1945. While we sat for a bite to eat in the vast, familiar dining room, the door opened and a very small nun flew into the room with her hands in the air, asking, “And where is our little Ginette? Ginette Henry?”
I did not remember her. I was barely 11 when I left the convent, and she must have been 16 or 17. Like a bird, she flew in my direction. I stood up and she took hold of my hands, and, standing on the tips of her toes, pulled me down to her level and gave me many kisses.
“Stay where you are,” she told us. “I must go bring the Mother Superior and the other sisters.”
Suddenly there was a flurry of long robes and veils, and the Mother Superior came in with all the nuns, twittering like birds. I remembered that sometimes, as a child, I would ask a nun why she saved Jewish children, risking her life every day, and she would answer, “Saving a Jewish child is like saving the child Jesus.”
Sister Marie Antoine told me that Sister Andrea had died very young. She said Sister Andrea had always talked about me. She was sure that I would return one day because I had made a promise. A promise to return to the only place where I had known happiness in the midst of a war so violent, a war against children.
Sister Marie Antoine introduced my granddaughter, Hannah-Charlotte, to all the other nuns.
“Look,” she said, “she is a miracle.”
Greta Herensztat was born in Paris in 1933 to a Jewish family that had escaped pogroms in Poland. In 1960, she emigrated to the United States with her husband and daughter. A poet and essayist, she was the principal of the Lycée Francais in New York City, and she taught Latin and French at several private schools. Her memoir, Rabbits in the Fields of Strangers, is available at firstname.lastname@example.org.